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A cough remedy from the hedgerows.

Many myths, tales and traditions testify to the value of this pretty shrub as a herbal remedy. The elder tree flowers from May to July and produces berries not long afterwards, in the early autumn.

Elder (Sambucus nigra) is a familiar sight in many fields, hedgerows and gardens.  Its clusters of powerfully scented, creamy-white flowers and small, dark berries are recognizable to most people – especially to connoisseurs of home-made wines.  In the past, all parts of this plant – bark, leaves, roots, flowers and berries – were utilized; today, however, herbalists tend to concentrate on the elder's flowers and berries for their curative properties.

Locating Elder

Indigenous to Europe, Western Asia and West Africa, elderflowers are grown commercially mainly in Europe, where they are collected in early summer.  In the UK, this herb can be gathered from the wild – away from roadside and cropspray pollution.  Since the 1986 accident at Chernobyl, prices for dried elderflowers have quadrupled due to plant contamination in some areas.

Medicinal Use

Elder is a specific for the common cold and respiratory infections.  The main property of both the flowers and berries is as a diaphoretic (including gentle perspiration in feverish conditions).  They also act as an anti-catarrhal (reducing mucus production), antitussive (reducing coughing) and expectorant (expelling respiratory mucus), which renders them useful in cases of influenza, nasal catarrh and deafness, sinusitis and pulmonary infections.  The berries have been quoted as a mild laxative and anti-neuralgic (reducing nerve pain), as well as a valuable source of vitamin C.  In general, the action of the flowers and berries is described as 'cleansing by improving elimination of wastes via skin, kidneys and bowel'.

The leaves, bark and root have a stronger purgative action than the berries, and the root is an emetic – so all are best avoided as internal remedies.

Collecting the Flowers and Berries

Gather the flowers on a dry, sunny day when they are in full bloom, and their medicinal contents are at a peak.  Pick the whole umbrella of flowers and place in a paper sack or cardboard box.  At home, comb the flowers off the stack; fully-opened clusters will loosen as they warm up in the collecting bag.  If they do not loosen easily, snip across the underneath of the cluster of flowers with a pair of scissors.  Do not leave the stacks on, as drying will be longer and the dried stack can give a bitter taste.

When collecting the berries, choose fully ripe bunches.  Pick them on a dry autumn day, otherwise the berries will soon grow mould, and place them in a cardboard box so that the ripe fruits are not squashed.  Provided that the berries are clean, washing is not essential.  Strip the berries of the stalk with a fork, making sure to avoid any green berries as they will add a bitter flavour and produce a laxative action.


The name 'Elder' comes from the Anglo-Saxan word aeld, which means 'fire'.  The shrub's common name is pipe tree, or bore tree, because the young, straight, hollow branches were used for blowing air into the ambers of a dying fire, for woodwind pipes or flutes and for children's pop-guns.

It is a shrub with many magical and mythological connections.  A dryad called the Elder-tree Mother was said to dwell in its branches; when the wood was cut to make furniture, the spirit was supposed to follow and haunt the owners.  Some old people still refuse to burn elder wood and, in some areas, doff theirs caps at the plant as a mark of respect to the Elder-tree Mother.

Shakespeare refers to the elder in Cymbeline as a 'symbol of grief' and in Love's Labours Lost, Judas hanged himself on an elder.  There is also a biblical reference suggesting that the cross of Calvary was made of elder, hence its reputation as an emblem of sorrow and death.  In bygone days, the Russians hung up elder leaves to drive away evil spirits, and the Sicilians believed that elder sticks would kill serpents and ward off robbers.  In England, a piece of elder tied in three or four knots was carried as a charm against rheumatism, and green elder branches laid in the grave during the burial ceremony were believed to protect the dead relative from evil spirits.


Recipes for elderflower and elderberry wine can be found in most wine books and are not, therefore, included here.  Instead, a section of other uses is given below, highlighting the versatility of this common shrub.

Elder Flower Tea

For colds, influenza and sinusitis, elderflowers can be combined with peppermint, yarrow or hyssop (plus a little honey if desired) and taken as a hot tea at bedtime.  These herbs will give restful sleep while cleansing the body and, on waking, the sufferer will feel better and be well on the way to recovery.

Elderberry Rob

A 'rob' is a vegetable juice thickened by heat.  Made with elder-berries, it is a useful cordial for colds as the berries contain viburnic acid, a substance which induces perspiration.

Simmer 2.3 kg (5 lb) of fresh, ripe, crushed berries with 450 g (1 lb) of sugar.  Strain and evaporate the juice to the thickness of syrup.  Bottle and store.

25-30 ml (1 fl oz) in a glass of hot water, taken at night, will soothe chest complaints.

Elder Flower Ointment

For chapped hands and chilblains, melt some solid vegetable fat in a basin over a pan of boiling water, and pack in as many fresh flowers as the liquid fat will hold.  Cover and simmer for two hours.  Strain it, when hot, into a container, allow to cool and cover.  The ointment should be stored in the refrigerated.

Elder Flower Water

Pack a heatproof jar with elder-flowers and pour on boiling water.  Allow to cool slightly and then add 5 ml (1 teaspoon) of isopropyl alcohol (obtainable over the counter at most chemists).  Cover with a cloth and leave in a warm place for several hours.  Cool, strain and bottle.  This natural toilet-water soothes sunburn and has been said to clear freckles.  If mixed with glycerin and borax and applied at night and in the morning, it keeps skin soft and fair.  Alternatively, a small muslin bag of elderflowers can be soaked in the bath water to soothe skin irritations.  Cold elderflower tea can also be used to bathe eyes when they are irritated or tired.